Return of the Road Warrior

Posted: December 28, 2007 in Uncategorized

With the relative force of a well-tuned Italian sports car, my Australian driving career went from 0 to 60 (kmph of course) in less than 24 hours. From picking up my rental car at noon on Christmas Eve, not a full day later I was already started on what I would consider an ambitious 2-day tour of Australia’s central east coast, and others would consider a rather stupid amount of driving for 2 days. My plan was naively simple: drive to Byron Bay, and figure out the rest from there, taking the chance that the roads would be rather empty while people spent Christmas and Boxing Day at home or at the mall. No real idea of where I was going other than the name of a town and a highway. With me, just a pack with some extra clothes, a couple cameras, and my iPod for road music. I had my critical ingredients, and around 9:30AM on Christmas morning, I took off.

One thing I noticed right off is the New South Wales highway department appears to be under the impression that if not reminded every 100 meters, the general public will begin careening down the highway at mach speeds, then promptly fall asleep at the wheel, killing untold hundreds of kangaroos and koalas stampeding onto the highway. Between the banner ads and bizarre Burma Shave-style signs morbidly declaring your inevitable demise should you drive more than 2 hours at a stretch, the constant speed cameras and signs insisting that you will not only lose your license but have to default on your house if you speed, and the steady appearance of wildlife crossing signs, the RTA frankly seems shocked that anyone would risk this insane business of driving at all. Mind you, once you get a decent distance from the city, the public seems to at least share the distrust in the local kamikaze wildlife. Many cars, from Range Rovers to family sedans, have massive reinforced grill guards and various other protective additions, to the point that it seems likely that the cars used in the Road Warrior movie were not in fact special made, rather just what the cast had driven to the set that day. Despite all this, the only two kangaroos I saw the entire trip were dead ones; at least, the ones that were identifiable as kangaroos.

Heading up the Aussie version of the Pacific Coast Highway, I gradually realized that the name was something of a misnomer. It’s not so much the Pacific Coast Highway, as the “Trust us, you’re near the Pacific coast” highway. The entire drive, without detouring off the highway, I think I actually saw the ocean twice. Otherwise, the highway stretches for many monotonous kilometers that look shockingly like Waimea and the Hamakua coast. Pretty, but I got over that scenery driving back and forth from Hilo, and it lasts a LOT longer here.

By the time I reached Byron Bay, the sun was just sinking behind the hills, and I was quite ready to call it a day. Even in the dwindling light, I could see why the Byron “shire” as they call the districts here is so popular; the quiet countryside is very serene and picturesque, hills rolling towards the ocean until they finally wrap around the little town of Byron Bay settled right on the beach. The town itself has clearly suffered some effects of its popularity, with numerous shops targeting tourists and backpacking students, but it doesn’t seem to have entirely lost its community as so many do. Unfortunately, Byron Bay seems to be particularly popular on Christmas day, and I drove through town on a tour of “No Vacancy” signs. Not terribly keen on sleeping in my little Toyota Corolla, and knowing there had to be at least one hostel housing all the college-age students milling around, I looped through the streets until I finally spotted a place with the word “backpackers” prominently in the name. Walking in, it was clear that this was an international hotspot as I walked past conversations in multiple languages and accents, got my room key from the Canadian desk clerk, and dropped my pack off on my bunk in the 4-bed room that was littered with my 3 roommates’ backpacks and assorted clothes.

After grabbing a Malaysian Satay pizza from one of the few shops still open due to the holiday, I grabbed my road map I’d purchased on the way up and worked out a rough plan of action for where to go next. I still wasn’t sure at this point of whether I was going to take a day to explore, but I at least wanted to get an idea of where I was and what was around me. After dinner, I decided to make an effort to mingle with the herds of 20-somethings milling around, and struck up a conversation with two boisterous and sunburned lads from the Isle of Man who shared their box wine with me to cope with the Americans at the next table butchering John Denver with a guitar and a karaoke machine. Since all the bottle shops were closed due to it being Christmas day, booze was sparse and closely guarded, so the act of sharing even crappy boxed wine that was more akin to slightly turned Kool Aid made for instant proclamations of brotherhood.

Eventually the hostel staff shut down the common area, however the excited energy of mingled youthful exploration and rampant hormones was still electric in the crowd, and like lemmings to the sea, all the backpackers in town moved en mass to the beach, bottles and, sadly, guitars in tow. After an impossibly brief burst of rain sent the crowd temporarily scattering for cover, a group of road-tripping Persians came screeching up in their tiny, bright yellow Holden, flew open the doors and cranked up Iranian techno, starting an impromptu dance party. Somewhere around 1, I had seen enough activity and not nearly enough booze, and rolled into my bunk back at the hostel, the weather far too warm to need a blanket, sand and sea salt from the beach still crusting my feet.

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